GAA culture of resentful compliance must be confronted and changed
Respecting rules and opponents means standing up when others refuse to do same
Not since Alderman John Jinks of Sligo passed into political legend by failing to arrive in the Dáil for a crucial no-confidence vote in 1927 has an absentee from the northwest been at the centre of so much intrigue.
Donegal footballer Paddy McBrearty was also expected to be in Dublin, in his case last Thursday evening to give evidence at the hearing requested by Dublin defender Kevin O’Brien to contest charges of having bitten his opponent.
McBrearty didn’t withdraw his evidence but he declined to stand over it in person and in the circumstances that would clearly have been unfair on O’Brien. There remained a case to answer but it was doomed in the absence of the main witness.
It is understandable that GAA president Liam O’Neill was frustrated by the outcome when he made the following comments on Monday:
“We had allegations,” he said, “and our system worked the best it could. A case had to be built, that was done, a decision based on the evidence in front of the CCCC, and a penalty was recommended. We had no evidence provided on the game. People who had evidence didn’t show and that’s it. There’s nothing we can do about it. Our system has improved dramatically. Páraic Duffy put that on the record last week. It works when people co-operate with it and tell what happened – that didn’t happen in this case.
“The ideal thing would have been having set the wheels in motion that the process would have been seen through. I think there’s a certain level of disappointment with this case. It would have been better if they knew they weren’t going to see it out to the end.”
As one of the foremost campaigners for improved discipline within the games O’Neill probably isn’t that surprised by last week’s outcome, as it is completely consistent with the culture of resentful if not hostile compliance within the association.
He is correct that procedures have improved beyond recognition in the past 10 years but the willingness to take responsibility for the blight of indiscipline and foul play has not shown commensurate progress.
Eventually a sufficient head of steam built up before this year’s congress to facilitate the acceptance of the black card to punish cynical fouls. It is hoped that this will redress the balance of advantage away from those committing the infraction and in favour of those trying to play the ball.
The only way of influencing a problem culture is to penalise unacceptable practices and do so with sufficient severity to disadvantage the perpetrators.
This cuts both ways: from the perspective of the wronged as well as that of the regulators. Misbehaviour should be punished in the appropriate fashion but it should also be acceptable for victims of misbehaviour to air their grievance.
It was known for a while in Donegal that McBrearty, still a young player for all his football prominence, was unsure about pursuing his complaint. That uncertainty was presumably influenced by cultural considerations and traditional disapproval for the role of the informer or the whistle blower, as well as apprehension at being seen to accuse another player.
But it was an embarrassment for Donegal, whose officials had driven the process and attended the hearing even in the absence of the star witness. It was also a set back for the principle of standing up against what you believe to be unacceptable.
This was a tough case for the GAA to take on. There was no video evidence and it involved investigation into whether or not the alleged infraction had taken place and then weighing up one party’s word against another’s.
For all the advantages of soccer and rugby in having so many of their top fixtures broadcast and the ready availability of video evidence, players in both sports have also exhibited a readiness to stand up for themselves.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago Leinster rugby captain Leo Cullen was prepared to criticise the failure to cite Paul O’Connell after the incident in Thomond Park. Last year’s controversy in the English Premiership surrounding the racial abuse of Patrice Evra by Luis Suarez ended in suspension because Evra was prepared to push the issue and publicly demand action.
Sometimes it does happen in Gaelic games. At last year’s Ulster club final Crossmaglen’s Aaron Cunningham was prepared to state on the record after the match that he had been racially abused by Kilcoo players. When unacceptable things happen on the field they should be protested and that extends to physical abuse.
There is a clear need to inculcate a citing culture within the GAA. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, just a brief word in private with both camps afterwards to check if everyone’s happy with what happened on the field. Such a mechanism would apply – initially at any rate – to senior inter-county fixtures where there is a greater likelihood of available video, which in turn makes them more important for setting headline examples.
The Central Competitions Control Committee can make the call on whether there is a case to answer, as they did in last week’s case but aggrieved parties have to stand up and be counted.
Another of O’Neill’s observations earlier this week is also worth repeating. “In general, if we are to have success with the Respect initiative people might discipline their own players where incidents that are not acceptable take place. If we could get to that level then we would be very happy at central level that our processes are working well.”
The obvious way to respect your opponents and match officials is to abide by the rules. Certainly that might sometimes involve insisting that your own players respect rules but equally validly it extends to protesting against a failure of opponents to do likewise.